The Mass Media and Political Coverage

Our prime source of political news is the mass media. But as noted earlier, comparatively little time is devoted to it on the local TV news. The same can be said of the space in many newspapers. Network broadcasts, which have the largest audience, are limited to a half-hour and can only briefly report even major stories. More detailed coverage and analysis are available from cable news stations and programs like Meet the Press.

The focus of political coverage is on the president; whatever the president says or does is newsworthy. Part of the White House press corps always travels with the president to make sure every word and deed is immediately reported. With the exception of the most sensational deliberations of Congress or the courts (the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and the O.J. Simpson trials, for example), the media give less attention to the other branches of government. Cable television has more recently filled this void. The House of Representatives allowed TV coverage in 1979, and the Senate allowed it in 1986 through C-SPAN. truTV gives Americans insight into the workings of the judicial system. Whether TV cameras are allowed in a courtroom is up to the judge, and there has been a reluctance to grant permission in the wake of the Simpson criminal trial.

How reporters get the news

Journalists rely heavily on the information they receive directly from elected officials, their aides, and press secretaries. These individuals are interested in giving their story the right spin (that is, presenting the information in a way that puts them, their boss, and his or her programs in the best possible light). Reporters covering the White House get press releases and a daily briefing from the president's press secretary. They also have the opportunity to question members of the administration and the president at news conferences. A presidential news conference is packaged. The president may spend hours rehearsing answers to questions that the staff thinks are the most likely to be asked.

Access to government officials is essential to reporters, and in return, they are expected to follow several unwritten rules. A White House staff person may agree to speak with a reporter only on background, which means that the source cannot be identified. This is why so many news stories quote "a senior White House official" or "sources within the administration." Information that is given off the record cannot be reported at all. Leaks, the unauthorized release of information to the press, are a fact of political life. In fact, sometimes officials intentionally leak a story in order to advance an administration's policies.

The media and presidential elections

The election of a president is a media event in which literally thousands of reporters descend on the states with early primary elections. Instead of concentrating on the issues and the candidates' programs, the reporters' coverage tends to stress which candidate is ahead or where each stands with a particular group of voters. This focus on the "horse race" has led media organizations to invest in repeated opinion polls during the campaign. Along the same line, the reporting of televised presidential debates emphasizes who "won" and "lost" and not the ideas that were exchanged.

In addition to hiring pollsters, presidential candidates employ media consultants who are responsible for presenting them and their messages in the most effective way. Media consultants understand that, even in an election year, airtime on the nightly news is limited. The sound bite, a term that describes a politician's succinct remark, fits well into this limited format. These strategists also design the candidates' television advertising campaigns. Most of the money raised for a candidate goes for television ads, particularly in large states like California, New York, and Texas. Although the public and the media often complain about it, negative advertising works. A negative ad is one that focuses on what opponents have done or the positions they have taken rather than on the candidates' own views, and it often distorts the record. In the 1988 presidential election, George Bush effectively used a photograph of Willie Horton, a rapist who committed murder while on a release program, to stress that Michael Dukakis was soft on crime.

The expansion of radio and television talk shows has given candidates access to more free airtime. An appearance by a presidential contender assures such programs instant ratings, and it gives candidates an opportunity to speak directly to the American people without having their statements analyzed by broadcast journalists. A similar advantage is gained from the so-called infomercial, in which candidates buy a half-hour block of time to explain their positions, although the costs are significant. H. Ross Perot used both of these longer formats quite successfully in the 1992 campaign.

The Internet is a powerful resource in presidential campaigns. Howard Dean, a candidate for the 2004 Democratic party nomination, showed how to effectively use the Internet to raise money. Web sites give candidates the means to profile voters, recruit volunteers, and present their views on the issues.